BY Noah Charney in Features | 09 DEC 15
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Issue 4

Tell-Tale Signs

How science has caught up with the art of forgery

BY Noah Charney in Features | 09 DEC 15

The UK bears the dubious distinction of having produced an astonishing number of successful forgers, not only of art but also of literature and relics of natural history. Whether this is due to the fact that Blighty has truly generated more forgers per capita, or whether they simply have a tendency to get caught, is a question that is difficult to answer.

Let us take a brief look at some of the nation’s most prominent and successful practitioners of this dark art — successful, that is, until they were found out. For the forger’s ability to pass off his work as genuine (and, for whatever reason, it is inevitably a ‘he’) remains a private achievement, until he is caught. Only then is his work praised for having fooled experts, and the experts publically shamed for having fallen for it. After serving invariably brief prison sentences, many of these forgers go on to have lucrative careers as artists. Dubbed a ‘noted trickster’ by Horace Walpole, the 18th-century forger William Sykes is best known for having simply added a fake inscription to an authentic anonymous 15th-century Flemish painting he’d acquired. With it, he managed to convinced the Duke of Devonshire that the depiction of an unidentified saint was actually a portrait of Saint Thomas à Becket, commissioned by King Henry V of England and painted by Jan van Eyck, whose works claimed the highest prices at auction of any artist in this period.

The 20th-century British forger of old masters, Tom Keating, was apparently as loveable as he was notorious. He turned to forgery to prove his talent when his original works were dismissed by the art world — a tale familiar to many forgers. He created more than 2,000 copies of works by more than 100 artists, including an (in)famous version of John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821). After he was found out, Keating became the star of a popular British television series on Channel 4, in which he taught aspiring painters how to copy famous pieces. In 1984, the year of Keating’s death, Christie’s auctioned 204 of his works and found eager buyers.

Perhaps the most skilful and thoughtful of all art forgers, Eric Hebborn was a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Art and claimed to have produced approximately 1,000 old master drawings, purported to be by Poussin, Raphael, Rubens, Tiepolo and Van Dyck, among many others. He would later write two memoirs about his career, including the posthumously published The Art Forger’s Handbook (1997), in which he taught his tricks to aspiring forgers. He was unique in that his drive for perfection could fool scientists as well as experts — for example, he would purchase, at great expense, early-modern paper and ink, in order to use them for forgeries that would be scientifically dated to the era of the old masters. In 1996, Hebborn was murdered in Rome.

The most recently captured master forger, Shaun Greenhalgh, was only convicted in November 2008. He and his octogenarian parents were involved in the most wide-reaching forgery campaign of all time: over a period of 17 years, Greenhalgh successfully fooled major institutions and created works of astounding diversity, from 20th-century British sculpture to the ‘Amarna Princess’, an Egyptian statue purportedly from 1350 BCE. He and his family were finally caught when a British Museum expert noted that Assyrian sculptural relief tablets, ostensibly from Sennacherib’s palace in 700 bce Mesopotamia, contained misspellings in cuneiform. But, despite Greenhalgh’s success, he and his family lived in a small house on a council estate in Bolton. When asked why they continued to live modestly, his father replied: ‘I’ve got six new pairs of socks in my dresser drawer.What more could I want?’

Over ten years, from the mid-1980s, John Myatt painted copies of works by Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti and others to accompany provenance forged by his dealer, John Drewe. (In 1996, Drewe was sentenced to six years imprisonment for conspiracy, forgery and theft.) The fake provenance was surreptitiously inserted into real archives to later be ‘discovered’ by scholars. Investigators have recovered 60 forgeries, but another 140 remain unfound. After serving a very short prison sentence, Myatt — who also claims he wrote a hit single, ‘Silly Games’, in 1979 — helped the police track down other forgers still at large. He now sells ‘genuine fakes’ bearing his signature for six-figure sums and hosts a Sky Arts television programme. George Clooney has optioned his life story to be made into a Hollywood film.

Scientific testing can rarely prove authorship, but can demonstrate inauthenticity, revealing signs that something suspicious is afoot. 

In centuries past, art was authenticated by connoisseurs — a matter of personal opinion could mean the difference between a work being worth seven digits or three. Witness the trial over the ‘American Leonardo’, an intriguing copy of Leonardo’s La belle ferronniere (Portrait of an Unknown Woman, 1490 – 96), which its owners, the Hahns, a working-class couple from Kansas, wanted to sell as an original. In 1920, Sir Joseph Duveen and his top art authenticator, Bernard Berenson, dismissed the Hahns’ version as a copy, without having seen it in person, by virtue of the fact that the original was in the Louvre. The Hahns sued for defamation of property because the value of their painting had been vastly undercut by experts expressing their opinion; they settled out of court for US$60,000 (GBP£38,500).

Today, provenance is still the primary authentication method, provided the work in question looks good. This is where clever forgers most convince: if the documented history of the object is sufficiently compelling, even experts tend not to look too closely at the work itself, sometimes missing red flags that, in retrospect, seem obvious (like Myatt employing emulsion paints rather than oils).

The best way to be certain that art is what it claims to be is through forensic testing, which, these days, is neither very expensive nor necessarily intrusive. Forensic investigation of works — what we might dub ‘CSI: Art’ — began at the 1932 trial of the German art dealer Otto Wacker, who was on the stand in Amsterdam on suspicion of having dealt in forged works by Vincent van Gogh. The provenance was suspicious — Wacker claimed he was selling the works on behalf of a Russian family who did not want to be named — and the two leading Van Gogh scholars could not agree on the authenticity of a handful of the paintings. With neither provenance nor connoisseurship able to reach consensus, a chemist, Martin de Wild, was called in to crack the case. He found resin and lead in the paint of Wacker’s Van Goghs: substances that the artist did not use and which had been added to speed the drying of the oil.

Scientific testing can rarely prove authorship, but it can demonstrate inauthenticity, revealing tell-tale signs that something suspicious is afoot, most often by identifying anachronisms in the material of the artworks. One example is the use of titanium white paint in a work purported to have been made before that paint was in use, as in the case of the forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, who, in 2011, was sentenced to six years in prison. It is difficult to create forgeries that can withstand forensic tests, but forgers know that the art trade tends to rely heavily on connoisseurship and provenance, both of which are easier to fool.

It needn’t be that way. The fallibility of experts and the manipulation of provenance by successful forgers means that potential buyers should feel well within their rights to request forensic testing on a significant art investment. For, while there have been dozens of forgers who have employed traps based on provenance, only one — Hebborn — would have fooled forensic tests.

Noah Charney is a writer and art historian who lives in Italy and Slovenia. His latest book, The Art of Forgery: Case Studies in Deception (2015), is published by Phaidon.